The Capitol Dome

Fall 2014

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I t is easy to imagine how members of the irteenth Congress might have felt as they drifted into their improvised meet- ing place in Blodget's Hotel (fig. 1) on the morning of Sep- tember 19, 1814. "Hotel" was a vestigial name for what had become the Patent and Post Office building four years before. (e site is a hotel again—where the Monaco Hotel sits at 8th and F streets, NW). Legend says that Patent Commissioner William Thornton shamed British troops into sparing it during their rampage through the capital less than four weeks earlier. Before entering the building sitting high on its perch on the "F Street Ridge," congressmen could look over their right shoulder and see what remained of their Capitol (fig. 2), or over their left shoulder to see the charred shell of the President's House (fig. 3). For many, these glances would have been their first real impression of the war's effects. We can imagine them sulking, feeling humbled—or vengeful. All saw ruins; some saw opportunity. Congress had not met since the previous April, two months before British forces first infested the Chesa - peake and fully four months before the rumors of their march on Washington finally materialized. House members spent their first week back debating the fail- ure of the city's defenses. After a unanimous vote for a committee of inquiry into the cause, New York Repre- sentative Jonathan Fisk (fig. 4) rose to address an even more pressing matter: "to inquire into the expediency of removing the Seat of Government, during the pres- ent session of Congress, to a place of greater security and less inconvenience than the City of Washington." 1 He pointed out that the government's vulnerability had weakened public confidence, which was necessary to raise the funds necessary for carrying on the war. Once the war was over and the menace removed, there would be no more reason for staying away. Opponents immediately responded that a transitory seat of government threatened the very stability that Fisk sought: "once set on wheels, there was no saying where it would stop." 2 But such an argument amounted to an admission that Washington would not be able to compete once the superiority of alternative sites was revealed. Fisk asked, one suspects, with undisguised glee, if his opponents really wanted to admit as much? With a few exceptions, members made only glancing reference to the issue of constitutionality. In the most sustained defense of the capi - tal's irremovability, Representative Joseph Pearson of North Carolina insisted that Washington's uninterrupted perpetuity as the "permanent seat of government" had been sanctioned by the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the original Residence Act of 1790. THE CAPITOL DOME 19 The Documentary Record September 26, 1814: The House Debates Moving the Capitol after the Burning of Washington By William C . diGiacomantonio D C HIS TORIC DE SIGNS, L LC Fig. 1. A computer generated recreation of Blodget's Hotel by Stephen A. Hansen.

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